If you are, or want to be, a professional speaker, you must understand the people that hire professional speakers and learn how to talk to them.

Association executives are continually seeking great speakers. And frequently, their board of directors expects them to do this without a budget–or one so small that the task seems impossible. I assure you, it is possible.

When is it cheaper to hire a professional than it is to hire free speakers?
The answer that many meeting planners would instantly offer is, never. The other day, I had an eye-opening conversation with the executive director of an association based in the eastern part of North America. If you answered the opening question the same way, hopefully, this will open your eyes.

The executive director said to me, “Ed, I discovered it was cheaper to hire you to speak for two days at my meeting than pay the travel and lodging expenses of the four free speakers that I was thinking of using.” For a couple years now I have been conducting multi-day for single-fee programs, and still, his comment was truly an eye-opener for me.
In an effort to be accurate, I should share some additional details with you. First, the meeting venue is Maui, Hawaii and some of the free speakers would fly from eastern North America. Second, I offer multi-day programs eliminating the need for additional speakers.

Deliver Value vs. Fill the Void
Do the people responsible for particular meetings want to offer usable take-home value for the meeting attendees or do they simply want to fill a void? There are a number of fearful situations for volunteer association leaders in which they just want to both be “safe” and organize a meeting “on the cheap” rather than to address the attendee and member value issue.

Not long ago, a meeting planner hired me to present at her national fall meeting. Since I live in the Greater Los Angeles area, she suggested that I might want to attend her coming Western Regional meeting that was to be held in Los Angeles.

I took her up on the offer and arrived early enough to hear the keynote speaker, a local college professor of marketing. Following the keynote, I said to the meeting planner, “I thought your members were in industrial…” She responded, “They are.” And then went into long discussion about how disappointed she was that the professor was so off-target for her group.

The Real Cost of Cheap
What percentage of the attendees from the above mentioned Western Regional meeting will rush to attend that same meeting the next year? What percentage will wonder if they again want to listen to an off-target college professor, who thinks he is addressing retailers but in reality is addressing industrial fabricators? How many potential following-year attendees did the professor lose for that meeting planner? Would this situation make your meeting appear to be shoddy or inferior?

Supplier companies love to send their representatives/salespeople to speak at conventions, as it is free publicity—even if they have to pay their own way. Sometimes the meeting attendees are lucky in that the supplier’s speaker will be motivating while offering usable content. Sometimes they are not so lucky, especially when the supplier’s speaker does not take the time (like the college professor mentioned above) to either understand the needs of the audience or plan an honest presentation. Too often attendees only get a sixty-minute commercial. After a sixty-minute commercial, what percentage of attendees will break down the doors to attend the following year?

What percentage of your other suppliers would also be outraged? How excited will they be the following year to belly up to the table and again pay more than their fair share for the meeting? Fair Share? Yes, suppliers always pay more than regular members. Associations justify the higher charge since they “get business” there.

Could the above combination of situations cost you 10 percent of your attendees the following year? And again cost you another 10% of the reduced number the year after that? And what about the following year? Could this be the reason for the downward spiral many associations are currently facing?

Saving with Professionals
Professional speakers live and die on their reputation. Please do not confuse celebrity speakers with professional speakers. Celebrity speakers get paid gobs of money to speak at a meeting, not because of their eloquence, but because of the average person’s desire to be in the same room with them—to experience them live. Their job is exclusively to attract people to the meeting. When I talk about professional speakers, I’m talking about the people that earn the lion’s share of their income from speaking at meetings or conducting trainings and their related books, tapes, etc. These are the people who generally interview and research the issues and needs of their audiences and tailor or customize their proven material for each unique audience. These people are experts in their field or experienced sorry tellers or humorists.

These are also the people your attendees expect at their meeting. These are the speakers that deliver solid take-home content while also creating a motivating environment. They have to be exciting, motivating and funny—or they don’t eat! Keeping in mind all that has been mentioned above, why in the world would you settle for a free speaker? Especially, when that choice could be the most expensive. Don’t your meeting attendees deserve the value they expect?

Association and society gatekeepers, as you already know, do a great job of keeping speakers out. Make your life easy and be more effective by calling the association editor. It works like this:
1. Write articles based on your expertise and/or book(s). Be sure they are quality work at the level that editors will publish the article.
2. Skip the gatekeeper, call the association publications editor, sometimes the title is director of communications, and give your articles to the association publication. Be generous; make plenty of relationship bank deposits, as it will pay off quickly.
3. After your conversation with the editor, use the “Colombo Close” to leverage the relationship by asking, just before you hang up, who decides on speakers for the organization’s events. Generally they will say something like, our meeting planner is Suzie. Then you thank them and ask, does Suzie actually make the decisions on speakers or is she mostly the logistics person. If they say yes, she decides. Bridge relationship to Suzie by asking to be connected. If they say no, actually Jane makes the decisions, she is our executive director. You say thanks and ask to be connected. An internal transfer gets through far more frequently than an outside call.
4. Last, you ask the decision maker about their speaker selection process. Sometimes they are currently selection, or selected last week, or will be doing so in four months. From this point on traditional effective selling is necessary. It generally takes 5-10 call backs to seal the deal. So…sell, sell, and sell, your speaking services.
The directory that so many professional speakers have purchased is the “National Trade and Professional Associations of the United States”, a.k.a., the NTPA directory. I did not state that the speakers have used them much as the book or online service is overwhelming. With approximately 7,500 national associations and societies listed, where does one start? That’s the challenge for most speakers. Start at the “A’s” or start at the “Z’s”, either way is not the best approach.
The NTPA directory also includes indexes. This is where you mine for gold! The Subject Index is the first place to start. The Subject Index has a little over 400 subjects (categories or industries). You should look through the index and find the subject (categories or industries) that you most resonate with. Which industries have you delivered home run presentations? Pick one and start here.
Start contacting the association editors using the “Bypass the Gatekeeper” method discussed in an earlier blog. Leverage to the decision maker and start your selling process.
Before you contact the association, take a look at their Website for the most current personnel, meeting, and chapter data. Yes, the chapters. For every association you contact, there might be 30-300 chapters—some having meetings and needing speakers. Contact all the chapters. If you use this strategic and methodical approach, it might take you several months to exhaust your first Subject Index list. When exhausted, select another and take the same steps. You have several years of prospecting, going deep in each industry, by correctly utilizing the NTPA.
An efficient and effective way to grow your association business is to speak at state societies of association executives (SAE). Speaking at an SAE’s annual meeting generally puts you in front of a few hundred association executives. The association for most of the state SAEs is the Association Societies Alliance: https://asa.memberclicks.net/
Rather than giving a handout during my keynote or workshop, I rather wait 10 minutes into my presentation when I see people taking notes and say something like, “Let me make your life easier. Give me your card after the presentation and I’ll email the PowerPoint to you.” I look at it this way; if they give me their card, that’s permission to contact them. After a couple weeks I start making calls. My follow up questions for executives and staff after speaking at a state SAE:
1. Have you used the info from my workshop? If so, how?
2. Have you accessed my article bank?
3. Did you join the LinkedIn Member ROI group?
4. Is there a possibility that we might do business sometime in the next 12 months?
5. Would you be willing to recommend other association executives that I should contact?
The first three questions are non-aggressive and put the executive at ease. After they are “a bit off-guard” is when I’ll get into the last two “selling” questions.
Sometimes you’ll get paid and sometimes not. Regardless, you are keynoting in front of a couple hundred association executives that can hire you for their meetings. If you do not get paid, a great concession you can ask for, that does not cost the SAE any money, is a complementary one-year membership in their organization. The membership gives you access to the SAE’s entire membership list.
When contacting these association executives, remember to sell up and down the vertical; when talking to a national association executive, ask about the chapters and when speaking with a state association executive, ask about how to speak to the national organization.

To grow your association business you would be wise to spend 30 minutes a day on LinkedIn connecting with association executives and staff. Sometimes a LinkedIn direct message is the only way to get through. It is really quite easy if you are connected to someone that has a large association LinkedIn network like me.

When I present at chapter meetings of the National Speakers Association and when I host my two-day “Selling to Associations Intensives,” I always tell the attendees to connect with me on LinkedIn which will give them second degree access to thousands of association executives and staff. This is truly a no-brainer!

If you pay for the Premium version of LinkedIn and have access the number of second degree connections, that being connected to me gives you, you can grow your association executive connections exponentially. This makes selling to these executives much easier. The paid Premium version of LinkedIn simply allows a greater number (per-month) of searches which is necessary.

I use the “all filters” mechanism to do my searches. Put in the industry “non-profit” and put in the job title “CEO” or “Executive Director” and you’ll be amazed how many association executives appears in the search that you will be second degree connection. To connect to even more association staff like director of communications and others, simply fill the executive director’s or CEO’s association name into the standard (top left) LinkedIn search box. Then when the company’s page (not group) comes up, click on it. When at that page, click on the “company employees” and you’ll see how many you are already second degree to and connect with them—using your pre-written standard request to connect.

I have a standard request to connect (for second degree connections) in a Word Doc that I simply cut and paste. I always type their first name in to personalize it:

I’d appreciate connecting with you. I’m the CEO of a small non-profit & the author of several books including “The ROI of Membership” & “Developing Strategic Alliances”. Growing our connections, I believe, will be mutually beneficial. Thanks, Ed Rigsbee, CAE

After the association person connects with me I follow up with:

Thanks so much for the connection. If I can ever be a resource, please let me know what I can do for you.

If you are interested, and/or would like to share access with your board… articles adapted from my book, “The ROI of Membership” are available at http://rigsbee.com/articles/association-growth/ and articles from my several books on developing strategic alliances are available at https://rigsbee.com/articles/strategic-alliance-success/

Please feel free to help yourself for personal use or publication.

And, if you ever need a speaker on the topics…please keep me in mind. All the best, Ed Rigsbee, CAE

The key is to notice that I’m not directly selling but rather making relationship bank deposits and the very last line above is a soft-sell letting them know I’m a speaker. From this point on, I have several different strategies based on a number of factors. However, this method should give you a jump-start and is to be used in conjunction with my telephone calling strategy—not in replacement of calling.

Since the mid-1990s, I have been presenting the topic, “Sell Your Speaking to Associations through the Back Door” at the annual convention of the National Speakers Association (NSA), at NSA chapter meetings, at international speaking associations, and at my own intensive retreats. The noticeable red flag that I most frequently see that stands in the way of speaker success is positioning. Your brand is a piece of your marketplace positioning strategy which is important, however too little time is spent by speakers in positioning themselves in such a way that trade associations and professional societies can buy their services. If they cannot fit you into one of their speaker slot niches or categories, you most likely will not get hired.

Sell to the market, and not your ego

The decision makers that are selecting speakers for their meetings are looking for the value they believe their members need…not your passion! Sometimes the happy coincidence is that they are both one in the same…but not frequently. Associations are looking for both hard and soft skills for their members but not “How Needlepoint Makes You Happy” or other random topics. The topics most desired are traditional to running a successful business or practice…perhaps from a new window? They are not looking for “Chess for Beginners.” You must sell to what the market wants, regardless of your feelings of what they SHOULD want.

Consistency of topic

Nobody is an expert on 10 topics…perhaps a couple? One is always better. When your website offers 10 different topics, you are perceived as a handyman style trainer. Those are the persons that are only getting $500 for a speech…which is okay if that’s your thing. The content experts and thought leaders that have positioned themselves well are the ones getting $5,000 to $10,000, or more, for their speeches. You need to decide on which you are, stick to it, and drive it as part of your positioning. Additionally, be careful of positioning one speech as pro-something and another as anti-the same thing. You must drive your unique expertise in one direction.

Clarity of topic

I once told an attendee at one of my intensives that her topic, “Helping Loved Ones Pass” would not likely sell at many associations. After digging into her material, it was obvious to me that she was really speaking about productivity…which is quite popular with association decision makers. It’s not that you cannot share what you are passionate about but you have to wrap it in a package that sells. Productivity, leadership, marketing, sales, teambuilding, customer service, HR, generational issues, etc. are solid topics for association meetings. You simply have to wrap your brilliance in the common topics so the association decision makers know which “pigeon hole” to insert you into. Do that and they can easily book you for an upcoming meeting!